mon 04/03/2024

Opera in Song, Opera Holland Park review – world-class singers in a brilliant recital triptych | reviews, news & interviews

Opera in Song, Opera Holland Park review – world-class singers in a brilliant recital triptych

Opera in Song, Opera Holland Park review – world-class singers in a brilliant recital triptych

Baritone Julien Van Mellaerts and pianist Dylan Perez programme a winning mini-festival

Second-night team: pianists Dylan Perez and Ella O'Neill, young mezzo-soprano Lauren Young, baritone Julien Van Mellaerts and soprano Anush Hovhannisyan

Now that the summer opera-house companies have pulled off staged triumphs under the most difficult of circumstances, it’s time to celebrate semi-al-fresco concerts. Not so many have cropped up as I’d hoped after the success of the Battersea Park Bandstand Chamber Music series last year.

The Wigmore Hall made a start in nearby Portman Square and we have a host of impressive August events planned by Bold Tendencies in Peckham Multi-Storey Car Park, building on the successes of 2020. Opera Holland Park's dazzling mini-festival of song, dreamed up by enterprising baritone Julien Van Mellaerts with the programming help of pianist Dylan Perez and the supply of a state-of-the-art Steinway, a proposal instantly approved by open-hearted Opera Holland Park CEO and Director of Opera James Clutton, has now served up one of the highlights of the year.

The idea was simple, motivated by the hard time and the infinite number of cancellations singers and instrumentalists have endured over the past 16 months, the details more difficult to fine-tune, but successfully achieved: three concerts linking the song repertoire to operas in OHP’s current season: the darker side of Janáček plus Dvořák to complement The Cunning Little Vixen on the first night, repertoire already well under tenor Nicky Spence’s belt; a generous range of songs, arias and operatic scenes reflecting the trajectories of Verdi’s La traviata and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (not in this season, planned for 2020 with the second night’s star, Armenian sopano Anush Hovhannisyan as Tatyana and Spence as Lensky; hopefully it will re-enter the schedules); and a delectable journey in song around the four acts of The Marriage of Figaro with Van Mellaerts and the fabulous Louise Alder (a rather starry replacement for the Countess of this season, Nardus Williams, with whom the original programme had been devised). Team for Janacek/Dvorak concert at OHPAs a triptych, for those of us lucky to catch all three, it worked superbly. Despite one joyous number from a selection of Janáček’s Moravian folk-poetry settings, encored with percussive support from Spence and his remarkable mezzo, Fleur Barron, the opening night was introspective, half in love with easeful death, half with dangerous and difficult love; rain on canvas suited the melancholy well. Generous inclusion of three young singers either still at music college or just out of it paid off with the total confidence and stage ease of sopranos Charlotte Bowden and Isabelle Peters and mezzo Charlotte Badham, supported by Perez. Two groups of four strikingly arranged songs – three solos and an ensemble number in each – touched on themes familiar from Janáček’s Jenůfa: village girls preparing for their lovers’ departure for the wars, even the famous rosemary which jealous Laca has poisoned in the opera made an appearance. (Pictured above from left to right: Peters, Spence, Barron, Perez, Bowden, Badham, Van Mellaert and James Clutton).

The big numbers were both cycles of sorts. Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs have a Carmen-like protagonist, longing for love and freedom, fatalistic about death, relieved by reverie in “The woods are silent” – pure introspective magic from Perez here – and the nostalgic hit we know as “Songs my mother taught me”. They could not have had a more persuasive advocate than Barron, a real mezzo star already launching on roles like Carmen worldwide. Of course she also played the gipsy Zefka who makes her vocal appearance halfway through Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared, one of the most original song-cycles in the repertoire.

Nicky Spence in The Diary of One Who DisappearedOur hero (Spence pictured left) is a tormented village lad who leaves behind the familiar life for an unknown future with Zefka and their child. Part narration, part embodiment of character, the work cries out for dramatic realization – though emphatically not a full staging of the kind Ivo van Hove essayed, and failed, partly through taking the setting away from its outdoor country location. Here everything was visualized and felt through the myriad colours in Spence’s voice, further haunted by the mezzo and the three other female voices, more distant. This was the magic of dramatic song at its most perfectly realized.

Perez shared the very distinguished and poetic pianistic honours the following evening with Ella O’Neill. After their modest binding-together of Prelude and Act One party numbers from La traviata, Hovhannisyan very much took command, with typically warm-hearted presentation and a mastery of the bel canto style she will be commanding as Violetta at the Royal Opera in November. The biggest challenge was Liszt’s Three Petrarch Sonnets. In setting Italian, as the soprano remarked, Liszt becomes a true native; some of us were lucky to hear it, too, in a realization of his unfinished opera Sardanapalo at the Suoni dal Golfo Festival in Lerici, where Hovhannisyan played the heroine. Hers is a potentially big, lirico spinto voice which she can hone to lyric perfection. The full opulence of the top can only be unleashed at selective points, and it was impressive that she took such risks in the second and most impassioned setting, “Benedetta sia ‘l giorno”.

We heard other sides to this fascinating instrument in art-songs by Armenian composers – Petrosyan’s “When my eyes seek you” gave the singer a bit of unintentional self-indulgence with the refrains ‘anush, anush, anush” (the word means “sweet”). Truly extraordinary were the native melismas of the spellbinding “Lullaby” by Komitas. Hovhannisyan should give us at least a whole half-recital of her native repertoire. Take note, Wigmore Hall.

Anush Hovhannisyan and Julien MellaertsHer ability to scale down and match another voice was most impressive in three of Tchaikovsky’s Six Duets, sharing the limelight with a mezzo she’s helped coach at Florence’s Fondazione Mascarade Opera Studio, Lauren Young. Another wonderful presence, another exciting mezzo voice with contralto extension like Barron’s; you can hear her as the Witch in British Youth Opera’s Hansel and Gretel, coming to OHP in August. The artistry revealed the wonder of these songs; the second in the selection, “Passion Spent”, is tumultuous. To end, we had the final scene from Eugene Onegin. Van Mellaerts (pictured right with Hovhannisyan) should play the title role complete soon; this was a fully realized love-too-late denouement, though more time would have released both singers from their music stands and allowed them to properly suggest a staging as Spence had the night before.

Louise AlderThough Louise Alder’s late takeover for yesterday afternoon’s recital meant some stand-sharing for repertoire she wouldn’t have time to learn, she so lives and inhabits every note of everything she sings that you could totally believe in the trajectory of her Susanna-to-Figaro, Countess-to-Count through the four “acts” of Van Mellaert’s cleverly devised programme, stylishly supported at every turn by Simon Lepper. With Williams’ indisposition, it couldn’t be as originally planned, but still made vivid sense: Van Mellaerts confiding to his love in Vaughan Williams’ “The Roadside Fire”, his delivery of Mahler’s “Liebst du um Schönheit” not overshadowing Clara Schumann’s setting of the same Rückert text only by virtue of Alder’s ability to bring the meaning to life, the two tender together in Clara’s other half’s “Ich denke dein”.

Loneliness for both the Almavivas was poignantly expressed by Alder in American desolation from Amy Beach and Copland, by Van Mellaert in an unorthodox Schumann song I’m glad to know, “Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen”. Then comic relief in a door-knocking duet – vaguely paralleling the closet confusion of Figaro’s Act 2 Finale – by Brahms. Just as Mozart gives the biggest numbers to the Almavivas in Act Three, so our two lovers hit the depths, with wondrous pianissimos, in Duparc’s “Chanson Triste” (Alder) and “Phydilé” (Van Mellaert, perfection here). Louise Alder and Julien Van MellaertWhat could match the beauty of the Countess’s forgiveness in Act Four? Oddly, Lehar’s Merry Widow Waltz, “Lippen schweigen” did the tearful trick – operetta,too, can be sublime in its tenderest moments (don't forget that Gustav and Alma Mahler waltzed around the room to this beauty). As if the Count were up again to his old tricks, perfectly illustrated by the insertion of the Act Three Count-Susanna duet earlier, we had “ ci darem la mano” as encore, Alder’s raised eyebrow at remembering Masetto just one typical detail of her life-enhancing art. If only the OHP space, acoustically so good for song recitals - and the supertitle translations, even if they didn't work at all times, are so preferable to song texts in printed programmes - could stay up for the whole of September. Next year, more of this, please, and maybe the inclusion of a string quartet or two to bring more people to the wonderful world of chamber music as well as song.

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